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Meet Canada's 'deliveryman'

On the day that Justin Trudeau’s cross-country tour stopped in Kingston, the civil servant charged with helping the Prime Minister deliver on his commitments visited campus. Matthew Mendelsohn, an assistant professor in Queen’s Department of Political Studies from 1994-2000, is now leading the results and delivery unit that Prime Minister Trudeau created following the election.

Before giving a lecture at the School of Policy Studies, Mr. Mendelsohn sat down with Mark Kerr, Senior Communications Officer, to discuss his role as deputy secretary to the cabinet (results and delivery) in the Privy Council Office, explain the public service’s new approach to delivering results, and share his views on the role universities can play in the arena of public policy.

MK: Media have called you “Canada’s chief deliveryman.” How would you describe your role?

MM: My role is about ensuring that government is in a good place to deliver on the commitments in the ministers’ mandate letters. It’s to help ministers and departments overcome obstacles that may arise in terms of delivery.

[My role and the unit] is really about doing three simple things. First, it ensures the objectives are clear for new programs or policies. Second, it ensures the delivery plans are clear. Third, it ensures there is an appropriate measurement strategy to see if results are being achieved, if the policy outcomes promised to Canadians are being realized and, if not, how the policy can be re-calibrated or adjusted.

[Matthew Mendelsohn]
Matthew Mendelsohn responds to a question following his talk at the School of Policy Studies on Jan. 12.

How does this new approach to defining, achieving, and reporting on results differ from the past?

I’d say there are a couple of different things that we are trying to do.

First, we’re trying to include more medium-term and longer-term outcome measures in what we are reporting and tracking. For example, a job-training program would not just report on the number of students they have served or the satisfaction rate of those students. It would report on whether the students actually got jobs in what they were trained for and, more medium-term, how long they held those jobs and if they are still in jobs in the field that they were trained for six months later. That doesn’t mean the input measures aren’t important, but government and departments have historically not spent as much time reporting on the outcomes.

The second difference is there is a real alignment between the public service and ministers in terms of their desire to focus on outcomes. In many organizations and government, reporting on results or accountability frameworks were often low priority public service exercises. There is accountability, an audit function, and it’s all really important. Whereas now, I think there is a shared agreement between public servants and political leadership that in addition to those functions, we want to have a better sense of what outcomes we are achieving for the dollars we are spending.

The third difference is that we’re more interested in public reporting on results and putting things out there more transparently. Some things might be going well; some things may not be going well. We are putting more data and evidence out there for citizens, stakeholders, the policy community, and the media to engage with and see how things are going.

Is there a culture shift involved with this new approach?

There’s a big change management process going on. At the moment, government and public servants are very keen, engaged, and focused on this culture change.

However, there are going to be frictions that emerge and gaps in skill sets and capacity. For years, people have reported on activities, “what we do.” Now they have to report on outcomes, and that is a more complex activity. It requires more nuanced assessment of what we control, what we don’t control, and how we attribute outcomes. That’s a big culture change, and I think everyone recognizes where we are trying to go and everyone has a shared vision.

[Matthew Mendelsohn]
Matthew Mendelsohn, an assistant professor at Queen's from 1994-2000, explains his new role as deputy secretary to the cabinet (results and delivery) in the Privy Council Office.

Are there things current students could be doing now to adjust and prepare for this new approach within the public service?

In the public service right now, we are increasingly looking for people with skills that I think young people are well suited to offer that we haven’t had before. I think we need members of the public service to have big data analytical skills. We have the need for people who can visualize data and processes and have the ability to communicate that visually through infographics and other means. Crowd sourcing, open-source policymaking, and stakeholder engagement activities more broadly are skills that governments are just starting to recognize they need.

People must have the ability to make decisions in a more horizontal environment, a more open and transparent environment where a monopoly control of information is not an asset and not even possible. They must have the ability to mobilize and harness diversity and work in collaborative teams to achieve shared outcomes.

Matthew Mendelsohn's Professional Experience
Director, Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation and Associate Professor, School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, 2009-2015
* Deputy Minister and Associate Secretary of the Cabinet, Cabinet Office, Government of Ontario, 2007-2009 
* Deputy Minister, Intergovernmental Affairs and Democratic Renewal, Government of Ontario, 2005-2007
* Deputy Minister and Head, Democratic Renewal Secretariat, Government of Ontario, 2004-2005
* Associate Professor, Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University, 2000-2004 
* Senior Advisor, Intergovernmental Affairs, Privy Council Office, Government of Canada (on leave from Queen’s), 1996-1998
* Assistant Professor, Department of Political Studies, Queen’s, 1994-2000

Many things haven’t changed, though. You still need clear lines of accountability, someone in charge, and you still need to get approval from a minister or someone with delegated authority from a minister. However, there are a variety of skill sets that government doesn’t have and needs more of, so we are in the process of looking at how we get those skills and bring people in with those skills.

Principal Woolf struck a committee to examine Queen’s University’s presence in the public policy arena. More broadly speaking, what roles can and should universities play in public policy in the 21st century?

That’s a really complex question. There’s the research element, the faculty element, the student element. I think there are pieces in all of that. I think we are in a period where there is less monopoly and control of information, so creating tighter collaboration and more open dialogue between researchers and public policy makers is really important. Having a place where governments can turn for authoritative information and real research remains important because we exist in a world where there are lots of incoming bits of information that may not be verifiable or as well tested.  

I think we are entering a period where governments are looking to outsiders and different ways of understanding the world. Government has a whole bunch of knowledge but so do researchers, stakeholders, and civil society. Governments need all of that understanding and knowledge to address complex public policy challenges, so to me public policy needs universities more than ever.